happy as you are

I’ve been preparing for questions about what my book title (If You’re Happy) means. Though the title comes from one of the stories, I also like the phrase because it lingers in possibility. Are you happy? What is happiness? Is it even something we should aim to achieve? Should we try to make others happy, too?

I’ve always wanted to make people happy (see pic of me with two childhood pals). It’s part of being human, I think, and helps us all get along. But at times I’ve cared too much about pleasing others.

I remember myself as an awkward, try-hard kid, wearing my heart on my sleeve. At uni, some of my college friends called me ‘the little mother’, since I would fuss over anyone sick or sad. Even now I sometimes tie myself in knots attempting to console, or trying to engage with people who aren’t keen on becoming friends.

I think some of this stems from childhood, from struggling to say and do the right thing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at deciding, I’ll do all I can to consider that person, but how they react is their business, not mine. Easy to decide of course, not so easy to feel. That child seeking approval is still curled inside.

The path to publication, while exciting on many levels, has intensified these people-pleasing traits. I fret that others are annoyed with me. I stress over small things, wonder if my tweets are silly, hope my Instagram posts aren’t lame. I imagine readers sneering at my book, pronouncing it not literary enough, too sentimental. And of course life is never smooth so there are other distractions and worries.

I’m reading The Daily Stoic* at the moment, and every morning I read the relevant piece for that date (the entries are around half a page, for each day of the year). While much of it is the type of wisdom I’ve read before, I find it soothing. It amazes me to realise these ideas were being considered and expressed thousands of years ago. The words of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca remind us to only concern ourselves with what we can control – our own judgements, expectations and behaviour.

I’ve written a book and it’s the best book I knew how to write. I worked hard on each of the stories. Not everyone will like them, and those that like the book may not like every story. These things are none of my concern.

I’ll probably always be a bit too invested in the happiness of others, always overly concerned about pleasing family, friends and colleagues. (And of course I’ll be hoping plenty of people do like If You’re Happy – I can’t change my personality altogether!) But remembering to choose my words and actions with care, then take a step back, helps maintain peace of mind.

May you be free from chasing validation. May you find peace of mind. May you be happy as you are.

* The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, 2016 (Portfolio).

standing on the outside

Lately, people keep asking what my book of short stories is about. It’s a question I struggle with, because each story is different, and each piece is an exploration of a separate issue.

But there are commonalities. Like most writers, I have my obsessions.

The collection is called If You’re Happy, and happiness is certainly a theme. How people imagine happiness, the ways they achieve it, and how they are hindered in reaching that goal.

I’m also fascinated by wild weather and natural disasters, so there are stories involving a melting glacier, an earthquake, a tornado, a violent storm, a tsunami, a blizzard and a sinkhole. I’ve just written a new story with an erupting volcano.

But most of all, my stories revolve around loneliness or isolation. The characters are people who don’t completely fit in, or feel like outsiders in some way. It’s a subject close to my heart, because I’ve often felt on the outer, especially as a child.

I was a gawky kid who read a lot of books, had weird hand-me-down clothes and a bowl haircut (see picture, aged ten or eleven). I was overly earnest. I had no siblings until I was eight and a half, so I spent years playing on my own, and had no idea how to ‘fight back’ if picked on in the playground. We moved to Australia when I was nine, and I was mocked for my Canadian accent, my tendency to cry easily, and my very white skin in the land of tans. I felt odd and lonely much of the time. It wasn’t until high school, when I met other kids more similar to me, that I found good friends and realised I wasn’t so hard to like, after all.

I really hope readers enjoy If You’re Happy, and find stories that resonate. I especially hope that anyone who feels lonely, or who feels they sometimes don’t belong, can take comfort in knowing this emotion is universal. We all feel awkward, or on the outer at times. We feel alone even when surrounded by others. We chase happiness, it slips from our grasp and then we grab it again. And in the end, we’re all just trying to find our way in this wild and turbulent world.